Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Riding the Rails: Reflections from a Lifetime Amtrak Passenger

Amtrak has been a part of my life since I was 4 years old. My family moved from Baltimore, MD to Richmond, VA when I was that age, and my mother, brother and I used to take the train from Richmond to Baltimore to visit family. We would wave at the old man on his porch in Ashland, VA, who would spend his day sitting in a rocking chair, waving at the trains going by his front door. We would get snacks in the snack car, weaving our way back and forth to the rocking of the cars. Once, a sailor who worked with Jacques Cousteau tried to pick up my (married) mom on the train, with her two children sitting right next to her! The three of us watched the world go by on those trains, and my brother and I saw what different communities looked like, heard what passengers had to say, and built memories when we didn’t even realize we were building memories (the best way to build them, in my humble opinion).

In college, I took the train to from Charlottesville, VA to New York for a life-changing trip that showed me the glories of city living. My brother then moved to New York, and I took the train to visit him. This country and suburban mouse was becoming more of a city mouse with each trip.

Fast forward to my 20s. When I first moved to Washington, DC, I would take the train to visit family in Richmond and Baltimore. Then, when my mother fell critically ill, I would take the train home on weekends. Did you know that there was a time when they showed movies on some trains? When I was Amtraking home to visit my mom in the hospital, I made sure to bring headphones so I could watch the movies. I once called Amtrak to book a ticket and requested a train with a movie. The Amtrak agent didn’t believe they existed, until he consulted his supervisor.

My toughest ever Amtrak ride was when I took the train home for what I knew would be my final moments with my mom. My dad and my brother were both waiting for me on the tracks when I arrived in Richmond – I knew that if they had left my mom in the hospital, it was bad. They didn’t want me to be alone when I arrived, and they didn’t want to be the only one with mom when she departed.

After that, my Amtrak habits shifted. No longer using the train to visit family (I had my mother’s car in DC), Amtrak became my work trip and friend trip mode of transportation, with regular – sometimes constant – trips to New York. Oh, Pennsylvania Station. The times we have had together. I remember the good old days, when you could purchase an unreserved Northeast Corridor trip and hop on any train of the day. Meeting ran long, and you can’t make the 3 p.m. train? No problem! Hop on the 4 p.m.! I made day trips for work and weekend trips to be with my many New York friends. Sometimes I worked on the train. Sometimes I slept on the train. Sometimes I listened to music or watched movies. Always, I reflected on the meetings, outings, and shenanigans of my time in New York, watching the Northeast Corridor roll by outside the window. I’ve seen some of my favorite sunsets on the Amtrak, golden and colored light streaking the water as we rode over so many rivers.

We’ve been hearing for years that Amtrak is underfunded. That major investments are needed in its infrastructure. That, other than the Northeast Corridor, the system is hemorrhaging money. Just the other week, I read this article about the future of Amtrak, “How Washington Derailed Amtrak.”
What a terrible shame that so many Americans can no longer access Amtrak, or never will.

With last night’s tragic Amtrak derailment, I have been thinking a lot today about the role that the train has played in my life. I’m grateful for this wonderful, deeply flawed piece of our national infrastructure. I hope that Congress will invest desperately needed funds in Amtrak. I hope that yesterday’s survivors fully heal, and that the friends and family of those who were lost find comfort. I hope that everyone gets to have a great Amtrak experience, riding the rails and seeing American roll by outside their windows.